Tuesday, September 15, 2015
For 16 Years, Law Enforcement Incompetence Let a Man Wanted for Murder One Roam Free, Until His Stepson Again Crossed Paths with Him, and Turned Him in; was the Murder a Hate Crime?
Re-posted by Nicholas Stix
Man spots estranged stepfather, suspect in 1999 slaying, calls police
By Tony Briscoe
September 14, 2015, 7:02 P.M.
Sixteen years later, man runs into estranged stepfather wanted in slaying.
The last time Willie Britton saw his stepfather Jerome Lawrence, the year was 1999, and Lawrence was being arrested on a domestic battery charge for beating Britton's mother.
Within a month of that arrest, police were interviewing Britton and his mother about Lawrence in connection with a far more gruesome crime — the slaying and home invasion of Far Northwest Side resident Marjorie Collette.
Lawrence escaped from an Arkansas jail before he could be charged and managed to elude authorities despite multiple arrests in Florida.
Sixteen years later, Britton, now 32, who has had nightmares about seeing his stepfather again, relived one of his worst fears as he walked past Lawrence on Friday in the 5300 block of North Lincoln Avenue in the city's Budlong Woods neighborhood.
"I couldn't believe it," Britton said. "My jaw almost dropped. I pulled out my phone and called police. I told them his name and that he's wanted for first-degree murder, and he's been wanted for 16 years."
Britton went into a nearby Chase Bank as he awaited officers' arrival. When police responded minutes later, he ran outside screaming to point out Lawrence. But police, Britton said, were reluctant to arrest Lawrence, who presented them with a Florida Department of Corrections ID with a different name: Joseph Mayhar.
"They almost let this man get away, again," Britton said. "He presented the bogus ID. I'm like, 'Look, I know 100 percent fact this man is my stepfather.'"
Police arrested Lawrence after checking his Illinois Department of Corrections' photo and eventually confirming his identity with fingerprints. He was charged with first-degree murder.
On Monday, Lawrence had swapped the jeans and gray hoodie in which he was arrested for a brown Department of Corrections jumpsuit. When Lawrence walked into the Cook County Circuit Court courtroom, he stared into the sparsely occupied gallery, where Collette's niece, Judy Beavis, was seated.
"I'm just glad they got him ... because he threatened our family" said Beavis, who anxiously leaned over the courtroom benches with her hands clasped during the hearing. "When he escaped, the police were watching the house. Through the investigators, he said, once he got out, he would get us. It's kind of scary seeing him back in Illinois."
Lawrence and another man had been doing remodeling work on Collette's house in the Edison Park neighborhood in the days before the 65-year-old was found dead in her bed by another niece May 21, 1999. Lawrence believed Collette, who had worked at Walgreens for 35 years and had retired months earlier, was rich, according to prosecutors.
Britton said Lawrence came up with plan for the home invasion, which he discussed with relatives.
"He saw this as a way to support us, a second chance," Britton said. "He figured he had this [white] lady, and she would be his easy come-up."
The suspect is accused of smothering Collette with her pillow, slitting her dog's throat for barking and making off with a bag full of her electronics and a safe, prosecutors said. After Lawrence stole his wife's car and called her from Arkansas and Georgia for help, she reported him to Chicago police, prosecutors said.
Four days after the killing, a detective and assistant state's attorney went to the Marion jail in Arkansas, where Lawrence had been picked up on a charge of theft by receiving and an Illinois charge of parole violation. Authorities locked Lawrence, whom they found in possession of Collette's belongings, in an interview room after questioning him. They returned that evening to an empty room. Lawrence had apparently crawled through the ceiling and walked out of the jail, becoming the fifth person to escape from the then-new facility.
Lawrence, who was arrested multiple times in Florida and used an alias there, was never connected by Florida authorities to the Chicago case.
Florida Department of Corrections officials said that once an inmate is in custody, his identifying information, including name and fingerprints, is sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which in turn, relays it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI then assigns the inmate a number. In Lawrence's case, FBI officials assigned him a second number before they made a connection between his warrants in Illinois and the new arrests in Florida. An FBI spokesman couldn't immediately comment on the case.
Prosecutors portrayed Lawrence as a career criminal, pointing to six felony charges, including burglary and robbery in Cook County, and four other felony charges in Florida, including fleeing and eluding in 1999; robbery in 2000; and arson in 2005. Lawrence doesn't appear to have a criminal record under his fake name in Cook County, according to court records.
A judge set his next court date for Sept. 22, when court officials are expected to determine an arraignment date.